It was fitting that we were at the Temple Buell Theatre Friday night to see Amos Lee, because it felt just like watching someone acting as though they were doing a stage performance of a live music show.
Not that the Philadelphia-born singer/songwriter and the seven folks with him – including longtime collaborators Jaron Olevsky on keyboards, Fred Berman on drums and Andy Keenan on pedal steel guitar (and about six other instruments) – weren’t accomplished, polished even. That was actually the problem. Ultimately, it just never felt as though anyone up there was digging deep, and attempts by Lee to give the show a casual feel fell flat.
Not even a shaky start on opener “El Camino” could kick things loose. The band had to restart because, as Lee put it, “You probably can’t hear it, but it sounds like space aliens are coming down and raping our faces,” but actually, we could. Also, Lee’s repeated apologies in case a few unplanned forays off the set list would turn out to be disastrous were consistently unwarranted, and a couple of times even came off sounding a little rehearsed.
He should have been far more concerned that interspersing a half-dozen slow tunes with long, drawn-out tales of his charitable deeds and songwriting for friends would bring an already seated audience a bit further down. The lengthy story before “Cup of Sorrow” was awkward but meant to be personally revealing; the song, from Lee’s fourth and most recent studio effort, “Mission Bell,” has an uplifting tempo and gospel-like quality that showcased the band’s tremendous capacity for harmony. Recorded, it can serve as foot-tapping background amusement, but live it could have been a revelation, a glorious foot-stomping jam. Alas, it didn’t happen.
Compare and contrast with opener Brett Dennen, who could not have sent out more energy, as though it were just bursting straight out of his face and guitar. The man had more animation in the periodic jiggling of his legs than Lee’s entire ensemble, and Dennen’s infectious grin and goofy demeanor brought the audience to its collective feet for such an obviously heartfelt standing ovation at the end that that it was truly painful he didn’t come back for an encore.
Maybe it was just end-of-the-tour-itis for Lee & Co., because between bouts of phoning it in, they proved that they had the wherewithal to crack smiles, and even move more than a half inch outside of their personal spaces – witness “Truth,” from “Last Days at the Lodge,” which was sent out as a blistering blues tune. Lee’s guitar work isn’t the most complicated; he relies instead on his rough-hewn, honey-slicked voice as his main instrument, and it was usually up to Keenan to provide the heartier fare. That was fine on songs like “Careless,” Lee’s melancholy tune about, as he said, “some of the saddest shit that’s ever happened to me.”
The real showpiece for Lee’s vocals, though, was “I’ve Been All Around the World,” a song he credited to folk singer Dave Van Ronk that I’d only ever heard played by the Grateful Dead. Stripped down to just Lee’s croon and sparse but deft guitar picking, the already haunting words came out achingly beautiful and sweetly somber. And as always, when backup singer Mutlu is called to the forefront, especially in an all-white suit, you know things are going to get fun and funky, as in this version of “Won’t Let Me Go,” which had both Lee and Mutlu channeling Barry White, with Mutlu going the extra step by throwing down a pretty hilarious Rocky Mountains-inspired rap.
More funk, more fun – either one would have lightened things up. Or maybe just more Brett Dennen.
Kyle Wagner is a regular contributor to Reverb and travel editor at The Denver Post.
Todd Radunsky is a Boulder-based photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.